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Worst -- and best -- IT interview questions

By Stephanie Wilkinson
July 9, 2013 06:00 AM ET

Since the people Neal hires will be working with external client companies, they must have a strong range of social skills in addition to technical expertise, but Neal isn't fazed by that requirement.

"Identifying social skills is pretty simple," Neal says. "How do they speak -- do they look you in the eye or down at the floor? How do they dress -- purple oxfords with silver ties or fairly conservative? What are their hobbies -- do any of them include personal interactions with humans?" he asks, adding, "and I don't mean playing Halo online."

Not every company has mastered the art of assessing social skills, Neal asserts. "We've seen a lot of hiring at other companies go wrong," he says. "People get too focused on folks' technical abilities. They're so fixated on the fact that the guy in front of them is the best .Net programmer out there that they're willing to look past the fact that he looks like an unmade bed."

Rambling isn't always wrong

Joseph Morgan, a data power architect at Netsmart in Kansas City, Mo., says his company is on track to hire 200 people in IT alone this calendar year. As a senior employee with 25 years of experience in the business, he is often called on to conduct interviews.

Favorite IT interview question

"Tell me about Java's 'synthetic' keyword."
Joseph Morgan
Joseph Morgan

Joseph Morgan, data power architect at Netsmart, has a few tried-and-tested BS-detecting questions in his arsenal, including asking Java programmers in what situations they should use the "synthetic" keyword.

"Many programmers don't know a thing about this keyword, so I would definitely expect most to give an 'I don't know' answer," he says. "If they do know what 'synthetic' means, they better know they can't use it, so it's an easy determination of both their skill level and their desire to bluff."

But Morgan doesn't stop there. "For those that do know the answer, I might follow up with something like, 'How do you get a pointer to the hyperbolic inhibitor of an inverse singleton instance?' Anything other than either 'I don't know' or 'Have you lost your mind?' and they're out."

He is not a fan of gotcha questions. "Asking the kind of questions that get candidates flushed and fumbling isn't productive," Morgan says. "When people get defensive, it's a bad interview on both sides."

At the same time, he believes interviewers ought to stay away from questions that begin, "Tell me a time when you..."

"I generally don't directly ask these kinds of questions. If the candidate presents an example of his or her experience, I might follow up and ask how they handled it or ask, 'How would you handle that if you were faced that situation again?' This way, we're homing in on their experience, but we know the answer isn't some rehearsed fantasy."

Beyond that, Morgan advises interviewers to "get off their pedestal" and be willing to consider answers that are not precisely the ones they were looking for. Having enough confidence to let the candidate run with an unexpected answer has rewards, Morgan believes.

In interviewing a candidate for a senior developer position, Morgan once asked a pointed question about a particular programming construct. He was looking for a simple, direct answer. What he got was a long and more abstract answer related to data architecture.

"Though he didn't directly answer the question, he gave me much more insight into the way he plans for problems in general, and in that context, he was right on," Morgan says.

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